Psychogenic Amnesia or dissociative amnesia: Complete guide to this memory loss
Imagine going through an accident and not remembering anything surrounding the accident, including the accident itself. This is what is known as psychogenic amnesia. In the article, we will discover what psychogenic amnesia is, what causes it, what the stages, symptoms, and treatments are, and what the prognosis of recovery from psychogenic amnesia is.
What is psychogenic amnesia?
Also known as dissociative amnesia, psychogenic amnesia is a type of memory disorder that is known for its sudden episodic memory loss. It can occur anytime from hours to years after the causative event. It usually comes from someone (subconsciously) blocking out information, specifically when it has to do with a stressful or traumatic event, which leaves the person unable to remember important information- like personal information such as life history and/or identity. The memory loss isn’t caused by any physical pathology or disease. However, the memory can be recovered through natural waiting or through the use of psychotherapy. Being a dissociative disorder, it takes the normally well-integrated and connected functions in our identity, perception, memory, and consciousness and makes them become separated, and thus dissociated.
What is the difference between anterograde, retrograde, and psychogenic amnesia?
Anterograde amnesia is characterized by the inability to form new memories. For example, a person suffering from this wouldn’t remember people they met the day before and so on. Retrograde amnesia is characterized by the inability to recall information from the past. For example, the person wouldn’t remember who are their family members or where do they live. Psychogenic amnesia is characterized by the complete loss of memory from a traumatic event. For example, rape. Some people can even lose the memory of their own suicide attempts.
What causes psychogenic amnesia?
The main cause of psychogenic amnesia is the stress related to and associated with traumatic experiences. These events can include serious financial problems, the death of a spouse or parent, guilt related to serious crimes, internal conflict, war and sexual assault. The person may have suffered the trauma or simply just witnessed it.
According to a 2002 study, there are no specific genes in human DNA that are found to be associated with a vulnerability to psychogenic amnesia specifically. However, another group of researchers found that there is an inherited connection between those who have dissociative amnesia and their close relatives, who have the tendency to develop amnesia of some sort.
A group of researchers in the United States found that there are some characteristics and personality types that are risk factors for dissociative disorders. Those who have been diagnosed with dissociative disorders have higher scores for immature psychological defenses than those who haven’t been diagnosed with a dissociative disorder.
What are the symptoms of psychogenic amnesia?
The symptoms of psychogenic amnesia don’t necessarily show up right after the event- it can occur hours or days later. Though there can be flashbacks, like in post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s likely that the person doesn’t know that this flashback is real.
Once the memory is recovered, the risk of suicide increases.
In many cases of psychogenic amnesia, the symptoms include:
- Behavioral problems
- Sleeping problems
- Forgetting one’s own personal information like name and address
- Forgetting family, friends, or coworkers
- Substance abuse
What are the types of psychogenic amnesia?
There is six types and patterns of psychogenic amnesia: localized, selective, generalized, systematized, continuous, and dissociative escape.
- Psychogenic localized amnesia means that the person cannot recall the events that took place within a certain amount of time (usually within a few hours or days) after a traumatic event. For example, some of the survivors from the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 don’t remember getting out of the buildings or what streets they took to get away from the attacked area.
- Psychogenic selective amnesia means that the person can remember some, but not all, of the events that took place within a certain amount of time surrounding a traumatic event. For example, some soldiers who experienced D-Day in 1944 may remember things like eating breakfast that day, but not other things like seeing a close friend get hit by a bullet.
- Psychogenic generalized amnesia means that the person cannot remember anything in their entire life. For example, their own name. People with generalized amnesia are typically found and taken to an emergency room to be checked out.
- Psychogenic systematized amnesia means that the amnesia covers only certain area of information. That is to say, all the memories related to a certain location or a particular person would be blocked, but not the other memories. For example, if someone had issues with their mother during their childhood, they may forget every memory that is associated with her.
- Psychogenic continuous amnesia means that the there is a complete loss of memory ranging from the of the traumatic event to the present. Essentially, from the event onwards, all memories are lost.
- A dissociative escape, also known as a fugue, means a complete loss of one’s identity, which can be due to stress. People who experience a dissociative escape can get lost outside their comfort boundaries and abandon their entire lives and families. This can last anywhere from a few hours to even years. Sometimes, a person ends up creating a completely new identity, with a new family, and a new job- while they don’t remember that they had another life before. Once discovered, they won’t know how they got to where they are or why they lack identification. Sometimes the recovery of the previous identity can occur, gradually, though there may be details never fully recovered.
A real example is about one man who was promoted to manager but didn’t come home from work and was reported as missing by his family. He was found about a week later by police, living with a different name, working as a short-order cook, 600 miles away. He didn’t recognize his family, friends, or coworkers, nor could he explain who he was.
Most often, people are diagnosed with localized amnesia or selective amnesia. Generalized amnesia is rather rare. However, people who are diagnosed with generalized, continuous, or systematized amnesia are usually later on diagnosed with a more complex disorder, such as dissociative identity disorder (DID).
What are the treatments for psychogenic amnesia?
There are no evidence-based, go-to treatments that are meant to treat psychogenic amnesia specifically. However, there are some techniques that are thought to be helpful. These techniques include:
Psychotherapy, also known as “talk therapy,” can be used once the memories are remembered in order to help the person understand how the trauma caused their amnesia, how it distorted their life, and how to help resolve their issues in order to prevent trauma in the future.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that helps the person focus on changing harmful thinking patterns, behaviors, and feelings in order to help recover once the memories are recovered.
Dialectical behavior therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is used for people who have severe personality disorders that took place after the person suffered trauma or abuse.
Family therapy is recommended in order to help teach the family about psychogenic amnesia and help them recognize the symptoms in order to help the person better as well as be a support.
Psychopharmaceuticals, like antidepressants or antianxiety medication, can be recommended in order to keep the person from getting too depressed. People who suffer from psychogenic amnesia have a rather high suicide rate.
Clinical hypnosis is used in order to relax the person and help them gain concentration techniques. These techniques help the person be able to explore their thoughts, emotions, and memories without the conscious mind blocking them. Essentially, it helps regain memories hidden from the conscious mind. The hypnosis strategy is commonly used to recover the memory from highly traumatic events.
Meditation is used to help people better handle their symptoms and become better aware of their internal states.
Narco analysis, essentially a series of drug-assisted question-answer sessions, may be recommended. The drugs used work like a truth serum and help extract information from an unwilling or unwilling conscious mind. The person’s imagination is neutralized by the drug making them semi-conscious. While semi-conscious, it becomes difficult for the person to lie and his answers become facts that the person is already aware of, albeit only aware subconsciously.
Creative therapies such as art therapy and music therapy are also recommended because the person is able to explore their thoughts, experiences, and feelings through a safe and creative situation.
What is the prognosis of psychogenic amnesia?
Although rare, with one 1% of men and 2.6% of women experiencing psychogenic amnesia, it’s important to be aware of what to do when diagnosed with psychogenic amnesia.
The prognosis, in general, is good. The majority of people who suffer from a psychogenic and dissociative memory loss will eventually regain their missing memory, either spontaneously, gradually, or through treatments like hypnosis. However, there are some people who are unable to regain their memory and who develop a chronic form of dissociative amnesia. The overall prognosis depends on each individual patient.
In order to improve one’s outlook with amnesia, it’s important to treat any problems as soon as possible- both amnesiac or complications like depression or substance abuse.
Have you or anyone you know experienced psychogenic amnesia? Let us know in the comments below!
Anna is a freelance writer who is passionate about translation, psychology, and how the world works.